Monday 23 September 2019

Fijian rugby on an upward curve as ex-Connacht assistant McKee targets the knockout stages of the 2019 World Cup

Fiji head coach John McKee. Photo: Sportsfile
Fiji head coach John McKee. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Since John McKee left Galway in 2005, his meandering journey has taken him across the globe but for the last three years, Fiji is where he calls home.

That's the same length of time he spent as Connacht's assistant coach, firstly under Steph Nel before Michael Bradley took over.

McKee's has strong family ties with Ireland. His great-grandfather hails from Keady in Co Armagh, while his wife Jennifer was born in Ballina.

There has often been a feeling that Fiji are on the cusp of something special and given that the current squad includes genuine star quality like Leone Nakarawa, Nemani Nadolo, Nikola Matawalu and Levani Botia, they are aiming high for the 2019 World Cup.

It has already been a breakthrough year for Fijian rugby. Back in August, they formed Fijian Drua - a club team that reached the semi-final of the Australian National Rugby Championship (NRC).

It had been a long time coming and the hope now is that the younger talents will be reluctant to leave the island as early as they have done to date.

The long-term goal is to form a Super Rugby outfit but it's very much a step-by-step process as McKee outlines.

"I've noticed already with the players we've got in this team, coming from that competition (NRC) they are much more prepared for the intensity of rugby at Test match level.

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"In the coming years, we will see the benefit in that the younger players in Fiji will stay there for a year or two longer.

"Players are always going to overseas but it's important that we keep them on the island for a year or two longer so it's part of their development.

"Some of our players leave quite young and they miss out on that development, particularly the clubs in France where they probably don't get the individual coaching they need at a vital time in their development."

McKee, a Kiwi, who has previously worked with the IRFU's performance director David Nucifora during his time in Australia, has worked closely with the Fijian Rugby Union to put proper pathways in place so they can one day become the force they so desperately crave to be.

"We're certainly aligning everything back home, (with) me as national head coach and almost a director of rugby, across all of our teams," McKee explains.

"It's really important that we get the same core skills down through our development teams so that as players, they can come up through the ranks to play the game at the highest level."

Pacific Islands rugby has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately, with Samoa going bankrupt but thankfully Fiji are in a somewhat better position.

"We've got lots of good, young, talented players coming into our programmes," McKee continues.

"For the Pacific or tier two nation, our sponsorship is actually at quite a healthy level. It's not at the level of some of the tier ones who have the big global sponsors but Fiji Airways have come on board which gives us quite an injection which will see the benefit in our high performance programmes in the next cycle moving towards 2019 and then 2023. We have got high aspirations of how we want to perform at the next World Cup.

"We are really working towards putting together a team and a support staff that makes sure we put ourselves in the best position to try and get out of our pool and to the play-offs.

"If we were to play the World Cup today, we couldn't achieve that because we're not there yet but the work we can do over the next two years, I believe that with the talent of players we've got, we can achieve that."

Winning gold in sevens at the Rio Olympics last year has also shifted the mindset of the nation, according to McKee.

"I think certainly for the mentality and the confidence of the players that they can go to that biggest contests and perform so well and win.

"It's brought about a little shift in the ambition whereas before, maybe it was more, 'We'll try our best and see how we can go.' Whereas now, there is more of a mental resolve and the belief that yes we can compete at the highest level. If we put in the hard work, then we can achieve great things."

A tough challenge awaits against an inexperienced Ireland side tomorrow but it's one that McKee is personally relishing.

"Ireland is a great place, great rugby supporters," he adds.

"The craic is great, everyone wants to have a chat. There will be quite a gang of them (family) at the game.

"My wife gave them some tickets last night and I said, 'You've got to wear Fijian colours, not Irish!' But I don't know about that, I think they'll turn up in their green but it will be great to have quite a bit of family there."

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